It had been nearly ten years since Alfred Weasley--then known as Alfred Woodruff--had stood uncertainly at the side of his mother's grave, wondering what on earth was to become of him. He'd had no way of knowing that that terrible day would mark the beginning of wonderful things, of a wonderful life and a wonderful family.
Then, he'd been a reedy, pale red-head scared out of his wits. Now, Alf was still thin, and still had the trademark copper-red hair of his family, but he was every bit of a man, confident and assured with who he was. He was well dressed, in neat grey trousers and a dark green pullover. There was something about him that turned women's heads; though not by any stretch classically good looking, he gave off an aura, particularly when he smiled, that attracted people to him. He was, in essence and behavior, a good person, even at the age of twenty.
He had just returned home for a visit for the summer...his half sister Liv and cousin Victoire were graduating from Hogwarts. And he was looking forward to being with his family, to the laughter and joy that seemed to permeate the Weasley clan. But he also had something pressing on his mind, and that is why his first visit on his return to England was to a grave site once more...in this instance, the grave of Fred Weasley, located on a hill at the outskirts of The Burrow.
"Hey, Dad." He said quietly, smiling at the grave and putting down a bunch of daisies. "They're spelled to squirt anyone who gets too close; I thought you'd get a kick out of that!"
He stood back a bit, looking down at the headstone, his hands stuffed in the pockets of his jacket. Funny...he always referred to his biological father as Fred in most occasions...he'd never had the chance to meet the man, and while Fred had sired him, George WAS his father, in the very active, real, day to day sense. The only exception was when he was here...then Fred was Dad, and his father became, for conversation's sake, George.
"I've been away, as you know. That's why I haven't been visiting much. America's terrific; I'm in this special program to integrate wizards into the muggle world in special fields; I'm going to be a doctor. Well, a research physician, anyway...the plan between the ministry and the muggle authorities is to bring wizard principles to their processes. My plan is to cure cancer...make sure you tell Mum that, will you?" Alf gave a dry smile to the headstone. "My professors consider me stubborn...can't imagine where I get that from."
He actually got down on his knees, then, on the clean spring grass, carefully pruning the area around the flowers he'd just set down. "So...other updates. George, Miss Shell, and the little kids are fine. The twins are an ungodly handful; he says even worse than the two of you were when you were little, because they're girls and even smarter. And CJ's coming back tomorrow...he's been with Charlie learning Dragon care as part of his Advanced Magical Creatures course. Finished now, though, and I wouldn't be surprised if George wants him to go on at Wheezes." Alf paused, as if about to say something, then he thought better of it.
"The company is doing fantastic. Seventeen branches throughout Europe and the US. And the WizVision project has started to take off. Rita Skeeter keeps writing columns about the elusive billionaire George Weasley, living in an obscure wizard village. You know Godric's Hollow has been protected from the media ever since Harry moved back there, right? Anyway, it makes me laugh...you'd never know how much money the family had from the house or anything. And I think they like it that way. George has everything he's ever wanted, except you, of course, and money won't buy that. It is funny, though...the night CJ had to destroy the building, what grew in its place mushroomed into an empire. It's as if love were rewarded. Or maybe I'm just sentimental that way."
Alf suddenly looked very seriously at the inscription on the headstone, and sighed. "And if I can pretend to know you at all, you'd probably be telling me to get to the point and stop procrastinating... because clearly I came here for a reason." Taking a deep breath, he went forward. "I need to have a conversation with George today that might not be very pleasant, and I'm not at all sure how he's going to react. Thing is, ten years ago he altered the papers on the store so that I would be listed as partner, once I came of age, because I was your heir. Essentially he gave me the portion that would have been yours. But, I'm no business man. And no inventor. Oh, I can come up with an idea or two sometimes, and lord knows I love being there; it really is the coolest place on earth. But I don't have the passion for it that George does; never seem to have that spark that he'll get when something hits him and he runs full tilt at it. And I don't have Uncle Ron's head for management and marketing, either; what he's done with his partnership is ruddy brilliant, and it's not me."
Alf sat back on his haunches, with a wry smile. "I know why they light up the way they do, though...it's the same way I feel when a potion has come out right, when a test has performed the way I expected. Heck, sometimes I feel that way when a test hasn't performed right, because then it drives me to figure out what went on with it. When I'm at the microscope...that's a muggle tool...it's like this whole new world exists for me." He smiled at the granite stone. "I have a passion for it, Dad...and I think that what I need to do is follow my passion." Rising, he dusted himself off. "Anyway, my point is, I just want you to be around for George when I tell him. Long term I know he'll be fine, but he might be hurt at first, and I can't bear the idea of that. He's..." Alf became choked up. "He's everything to me. I don't know what I would have done or what I would have become if you hadn't had a twin. He is the greatest man I know, and not because of the money or anything. But..." Alf blinked, and forced himself to be calm. "I need to be what I am. And I know you have ways of communicating with him when he needs you. So consider yourself on alert that he might." He put his hands back in his pockets, and smiled down at the grave once more. "Love you."
Alf turned and ambled down the hillside, thinking he'd pop in to say hi to his Gran before apparating to Godric's Hollow. Just at the bottom of the hill, he paused and looked back at the grave he'd left. He wondered, briefly, how things might have been different if Fred had lived. He'd have moved right in with him, of course, and George just another Uncle, although maybe a particularly special one. When he was threatened by his squib status, it would have been Fred who moved to Salem with him. Fred who would have met Miss Shell, not George...and somehow that seemed wrong. But then, George would have married Angelina, wouldn't he have?
Don't count on it, kid. A voice seemed to come to him. Even I could see that they were too darn stubborn to be together. They were never meant to be. But don't worry about what-ifs. Past stuff. And don't worry about George. It's not like you're telling him you want out of the family business so you can go sit on a beach and drink from coconuts. Now get yourself home...Freddo's waiting for you anxiously!
Alf smiled, feeling a warmth inside. He'd never had that happen before, never felt so strongly Fred's presence like that. Of course, he might just be imagining what he wanted to hear. But why believe that, when there was such a wonderful other option to believe in?
"Later, Dad." He said, then turned and jogged over towards the house.
It was with a quiet pop that Alf appeared on the cul-de-sac in Godric's hollow; his bag slung over his shoulder. He looked around and felt that happy feeling he always had as he looked on his home.
George had put on an addition a few years back, but other than that the tidy little cape house was unchanged; the lawn in front neatly manicured with colorful flowerbeds; Alf knew that in back was an extensive vegetable garden that his father loved working in. The entire place had a quiet hush to it, not uncommon in wizarding communities. It truly did not appear to be the home of one of the wealthiest wizards in Great Britain, and he had no doubt that his dad liked it that way.
The hush was broken with a squeal of delight from his left, and Alf turned about to see a small boy leap the fence in one bound and come tearing up the yard towards him. Freddo, another reedy red-head in the family. "ALF! ALF'S HOME!" He shouted joyously, wide grin splitting his face.
Alf dropped his duffle at once and waited, arms out stretched, as Freddo leapt towards him; he caught him neatly and swung him around and around. "FREDDO! WHAT'S UP, BRO!" He laughed as Freddo giggled with excitement. He only stopped spinning when he felt his own stomach lurch, and then he lifted his little brother high; Freddo threw his arms around him and hugged him tight, as Alf pulled out his wand and levitated his duffel before him as he carried Freddo on his hip towards the house.
"You being good?" Alf asked, with a wink.
"Of course!" Freddo said. Then he gave a huge sigh, and leaned against Alf's shoulder in mock desperation. "But they are TORTURING me!"
No need to ask who 'they' were, and it wasn't Michelle and George. The twins, Molly and Katie, where absolute terrors. Now Freddo had his moments of mischief, but the now five-year old girls seem to have been born with full blown marauder status. And they loved pranking their big brother, who tried to take it good naturedly most of the time. They did not make it easy, however.
"What are they doing to you now, hm?" Alf asked, sympathetically.
"They hid all of my books this morning. Mum said they're jealous because I'm such a good reader, but it took us hours to find them...one was in the garden, two were in the back shed...there were four on the roof!" Freddo's eyes were wide. "I wouldn't hide their stuffed bunnies, why would they do that to me?"
"Probably want you to play with them a bit more, and thought that if your books were out of sight you would have no choice." Alf maneuvered the floating bag through the front door. "You do read quite a bit."
"But I like to read." Freddo said, seriously. "It's so very interesting!"
"Is that you, Alf?" Michelle called out from the newly added playroom.
"Yes, Mother...the prodigal son has returned!" Alf teased out to her.
"Prodigal my arse!" She called back, coming through the doorway. She caught Alf's bag neatly and dropped it to the side, coming forward to kiss his cheek. "You look half starved." She worried at once.
"I miss Dad's cooking." Alf put Freddo down, and winked at him. "Have any papers for me to look at?"
Freddo beamed...he was in his first year of day school and had been saving up all his work to show his brother. "I'll go get my folder!" He said, excitedly; Alf smiled after him and followed his step-mother towards the kitchen, where he hopped up on a stool by the breakfast bar.
Michelle was already cutting him a heaping slice of strawberry pie. "Freddo's been talking about you and CJ coming home non-stop for the past week. He does miss you." She put the plate down in front of him, and leaned on the bar across. "Not that the rest of us don't."
"Mmm." Alf took the first bit of pie and closed his eyes in ecstasy. "I've missed the food."
Michelle cuffed him on the head gently. "Stop that." There was a huge clatter upstairs and a yelp from Freddo; Michelle closed her eyes and moaned. "Your sisters are going to be the death of me, Alfred!"
"Cheer up...they'll be at Hogwarts in a mere six years." He replied, earning himself another good-natured cuff as Michelle left to intercede.
George Weasley was an exceedingly content man, especially now that Alfred was home for the summer. His business was successful beyond his wildest hopes, it is true; he had more money than he ever would have believed possible when he was growing up. But what made him happiest was his wife and five kids; spending time in the back yard in his garden or in his kitchen cooking; laughing with his family over the recent exploits of their various offspring.
This night he was out back letting the dog run...Hagrid was trying to route out some gnomes...and waiting for Alf to come out to speak with him. George smiled; he knew Alfred sometimes better than Alf knew himself.
"Hey, Dad." The young man came up beside him, much of the same height and build, though George's hair was showing the first sign of gray. "Nice night."
"Indeed." George said. "You going out tonight, I suppose?"
"Meeting Teddy down at the Cauldron for a bit. Bunch of us from school going to be there." Alf admitted. "You don't mind?"
"Not at all...I expected as such. Besides, you've already committed yourself to about fifteen of Freddo's youth quidditch matches. You need to have a night or two to yourself!" George's mouth twitched. It was so funny to remember that Alf had once feared George having kids of his own...Alf clearly adored Freddo, and the feeling was quite mutual. Thinking about Alf's evening, though, George dug into his pocket and tossed a set of keys to his oldest.
"What's this?" Alf asked, looking them over.
"To the flat over the store." George said. "CJ stays there sometimes when he's home, and I'd rather you not splinch yourself trying to get home late at night after a few beers."
Alf grinned at him. "Hasn't happened so far, but thanks."
They shared a few seconds of companionable silence; Rufus came over, wound around Alf's ankles until he picked him up and scratched behind the cat's ears. Together they watched the dog run, enjoying just being near each other. George gave Alf a quick glance. "Dating anyone?"
"Not seriously." Alf admitted. He had his share of dates, but to this point there wasn't anybody that just made him feel like she was THE ONE. And he expected there to be someone like that out there. He wasn't going to settle for anything less than what George and Michelle had. "I'm rather enjoying playing the field." He quipped.
"Breaking hearts all over America, are you, you cad?"
"Weasley charm...utterly irresistible." Alf laughed. At that moment a gnome darted across the yard, and Rufus shot away from him like an arrow.
"Michelle would like you to be settled down with a nice, steady girl." George slipped in, as they watched the chase.
"Whereas you would rather I took on a wild tramp?" Alf nudged him. "Seriously, though...I'd like to be settled down with a nice girl myself. But I thought I would wait until I found one. After all, if you'd hooked up at my age, I'd be calling Angelina Morgainne Mum!"
"Wiseass." George nudged him back.
"But an honest wiseass." Alf pointed out, and they lapsed into silence once more. Finally, Alf took a deep breath. "Can I talk to you about something, Dad?"
George, rather than giving him a sarcastic answer back that he had been under the impression that they WERE talking, gave him a gentle, side-long look. He could see Alf was pretty nervous about something, and had the feeling that this wasn't a time for playful banter. "You can always talk to me." George put his hand on Alf shoulder, squeezing it firmly.
Alf nodded, and then headed over to the wrought iron bench by the rose trellis; putting his hands on his knees; George sat beside him.
"Right." Alf gave a short laugh, looking at the dirt between his feet. "I'm not one for Gryffindor bravery, I guess."
George reached over and touched under his chin, and lifted his head around. "You do not need to be brave to talk to me, Alf. Not ever."
Alf's blue eyes met his, clear and serious. He nodded once. "Okay, then. Dad...ten years ago you made me a partner in the store. You made sure I was getting what Fred would have left behind for me. And I appreciate that. But...I don't want it." Alf flushed a bright red as he realized how blunt that sounded. "I mean, I think it's wonderful...I think you're wonderful, and brilliant, but it isn't me...it's not what I am." He gave a little shake. "Dad...CJ should have the partnership. Not me. Please understand?"
George was looking quite seriously at Alf. "You don't want your share of the partnership?"
Alf swallowed hard, but shook his head slowly. "No, no I don't."
"And you realize how much money you'd be giving up by just walking away?" George repeated.
"Hundreds of thousands of Galleons, I'd imagine." Alf admitted, swallowing hard.
"A bit more than that. Your share of the partnership...which is only in Wheezes and not the side branches, at the moment...is currently valued at roughly two point eight million Galleons." George raised an eyebrow. "And you're willing to walk away from that?"
Alf gaped a little; he knew that he'd only inherited what Fred would have left, which was a third of the founding store. That that tiny piece of the corporation was so valuable was stunning. But still! "Dad, I'm going to go in to medicine. I want to continue working the muggle project. It's where I shine. It's where I belong. I'd be an adequate business man...but I'm a brilliant potions maker and researcher. Please try to understand?" He pleaded.
"Who said I didn't understand?" George put on a phony look of surprise. And reaching in to his jacket pocket, he pulled out a draft from Gringots, and handed it over. "Didn't you wonder how I knew so exactly what your chunk of the flagship was worth?"
Alf's hand shook as he beheld the slip of parchment. It was a transfer of funds, into a personal bank account in Alf's name, for exactly two point eight million Galleons. "DAD!" Alf gaped. "YOU CAN'T BE SERIOUS!"
George smiled at him. "For once, yes I can. That's YOURS, Alf; your right by birth. And I've anticipated this moment since the day you graduated from Hogwarts. I do know you, son. I see your brilliance, and I know where your talents lay. But if you think that just because you have different skills than I do, that I'd cheat you out of your rightful share, then I don't think you know me at all."
Alf's eyes flooded with tears, and he turned and embraced his father. "I don't care about the money, Dad." He said hoarsely. "I was afraid you'd be upset...and I'd never want to hurt you."
"Well, you haven't." George hugged him back, then held him by the shoulders to look at him. "I mean, honestly, it's not like the business is going to go belly up because I have nobody to carry on when I decide to retire. Even if Freddo continues to show a rather frightening tendency to follow in your footsteps, brain-wise, I have a feeling that the twins are more than up to the mischief level needed for the job. To say nothing of Ricky...he's already talking to me about a job and he's a year away from graduation."
Alf managed a smile, that faded as he looked down at the draft. "But what I really wanted was to give my share to CJ..." He said, softly.
George stroked Alf's cheek gently. "Do you not yet understand that my giving to you doesn't preclude me giving to him as well? I have bought out your share of the store, and I fully intend to make all provisions for CJ. And for the record, this..." He poked at the parchment. "...has nothing to do with any provision that I have left for you in my will. "
"Don't." Alf shivered slightly. "I don't want to think that way."
George smiled sadly at Alf, but didn't push the issue. He understood well enough that Alf had no desire to think of his death. He equally understood that sometimes death had other ideas...he'd learned that the hard way. "Anyway...the point is that this provision is because you are Fred's son. It has nothing to do with the fact that you are also mine. Understood?"
"Understood." Alf exhaled, feeling a huge burden slipping from his shoulders.
"As for CJ...I was planning on setting him in charge of a magical creature development division. It would seem to be perfect for him. I would make him a full out partner, but you know how he is...he'll get all flustered and panicky and insist he's not worthy of it." Alf laughed with George at this too accurate picture of CJ. "So we'll work him up to feeling worth of it. As for the money...I'd not hand every twenty year old that chunk of change. But I know you'll be prudent. Not that if you ever needed anything I wouldn't be there for you...after all, I am, as Rita Skeeter calls me, the Wizarding Bill Grates."
"Gates." Alf corrected; he had, after all, scored 215 on his Muggle Studies NEWTS.
"Whatever." George frowned. "Better that than that Murdoch fellow...I've caught him on the muggle news and I don't care for him at all."
"There is no way you're like Ruppert Murdoch. And even less like Bill Gates." Alf studied his father carefully. "Much more like Richard Branson...billionaire, visionary, considered quite the sexy catch in his day..."
"...now you're talking..."
"And daring. Man likes to jump out of airplanes. Without magic." Alf finished.
George looked at Alf carefully, to see if he was joking on that. Apparently not. "Alfred...if you want to live to see twenty-one, you will swear to me now that you will NEVER tell your grandfather that story!"
Alf, feeling much lighter and less burdened than he had earlier, headed towards the Leaky Cauldron with an extra spring in his step. He felt just a little foolish that he'd so underestimated his father, and the thought of the money he now had was quite dizzying. But George did know him well...his head was not filled with thoughts of extravagant items he could now purchase, but more content with knowing he pretty much had the freedom to follow whatever obscure medical research he chose, without worrying about his financial future.
His mood didn't make Alf any less aware of those around him, however, and as he easily navigated muggle London he was quite aware of more than one woman eyeing him. When it had first started happening in America it took him by surprise...he hadn't dated much at Hogwarts, and was more considered a good "friend" than potential boyfriend material. But somehow the years, and his own self assurance, added with his essential good nature, had changed that fact.
Dating in England, though, was different than dating in America. Women there knew him only for who he was, and he trusted that. Here, even if they didn't know his last name, they knew he was a Weasley. One of THE Weasleys, related to the owner of the most successful franchise in Britain and also to the Minister of Magic, in Uncle Percy. By seventh year he'd been aware that certain young ladies would throw themselves at him simply because of who his father was. The same young ladies who would ignore Teddy, no matter how good looking, because of who HIS father was. Well, no thank you to that; it wasn't worth the mindless snog, in Alf's opinion. He supposed other men wouldn't have cared so much.
So he was careful around women, even while he knew he attracted them. Though he wasn't adverse to a bit of flirting, certainly. Such were his thoughts as he stepped into the noisy interior of the Leaky Caudron, and spotted a young woman who he thought might be worth a bit of conversation.
Her back was to him; he couldn't see more than her profile in the dark bar. She had lovely, sleek black hair that was pulled back into a high ponytail and which cascaded down her back. She was in a snug fitting pale rose top that showed off modest curves, and long, lean legs beneath a neat black skirt. Sexy without advertising the fact, which in Alf's opinion was quite the best way to be. He also noticed her ears...well, the one ear that was to him; somehow he found ears particularly alluring; hers were small, with nice lobes from which dangled filigree earrings. She was watching WizVision (Dad's successful transcription of muggle television for Wizard use) intently, though all they were showing was the muggle news from yesterday. He decided to approach her, putting on his best flirty grin.
No line. Alf thought, as he came up to her. I'd bet she's not a line kind of person. I'm just going to flat out ask her if I could buy her a glass of whatever she's drinking.
He was only a foot away from her when she turned around, and...
Eileen Prince was beyond happy to be back in England, and was looking forward to seeing her dearest friends this evening. She'd spent most of the past two years at an advanced healing school in Paris, and had seen Teddy and CJ rarely, and Alf not at all. It was rather ironic that Alf was in school in America; she went to the States to see her family on breaks, which of course was when he was back in England. Teddy and CJ had both crossed her paths on the Continent on occasion, during their own studies.
But she had a summer apprenticeship at St. Mungo's, working with Fleur Weasley in the maternity ward, and had just taken a neat little flat at the farthest reach of Diagon Alley. She'd run in to Teddy, who'd suggested she'd pop by the Cauldron, as Alf was due back. CJ would not be returning until tomorrow.
She was early...she was always early...and neither were there yet when she arrived. But she found herself entranced by George Weasley's newest property, the WizVision; and the muggle news today was covering the threat of a hurricane in New Orleans, her home town. It was rumored to be as potentially bad as Katrina, back in the beginning of the millennium, and there was concern that the new levees would not hold up. She thought they would, though; these were wizard built, not that muggles knew that.
A sensation came over her of being watched. Watched, and checked out. A fairly new experience for her in England, though it had been common enough in Paris: Frenchmen were the same, wizard or muggle! And she decided, right at that moment, that a little harmless flirting wouldn't be a bad thing. Unless he was a complete cad, of course...but her sixth sense was telling her that was not the case; she could almost feel other women in the bar turning to look at her suitor with envy. Anyway, it wouldn't hurt to let him buy her a beer, right?
She planted her flirtiest smile on, and turned to look at her visitor...BLOODY HELL!
"Alf??" She covered her momentary shock quickly she hoped, and let her flirty smile turn to her regular one.
"Eileen!" He gaped at her for a second, not recovering as quickly as she had, and then he reached over and gave her shoulder a little punch that somehow seemed strange, though it was exactly what they would have done two years ago quite easily. "I had no IDEA you were in town!"
"Teddy wanted to surprise you." She said, swinging around and feeling suddenly self conscious of her legs, which she crossed and tucked around the bar stool. Alf came in and leaned on the bar next to her, a slight blush still on his face. "So...how have you been? I want to hear all about your studies..." She motioned to Tom for another round.
Alf gratefully accepted the pint, and downed half of it in one gulp. Then, taking a deep breath, he began telling her about his program.
Eileen smiled and nodded and pretended to be listening. Really, she was studying her friend. In some ways Alf was unchanged, but in others it seemed like he had changed completely. His hair, for instance; of course it had always been red...but had it always been such a color? That new penny copper with a high shine to it? And had it always curled like that, that little wave that settled around his head and against his neck?
And his eyes were blue, plain old blue like they always were. But it didn't seem so plain tonight. There was a depth there, a kindness, an intelligence, and a spark that she liked. Certainly Alf had always been kind and smart and funny...she just never realized how much it showed in his eyes.
Maybe his eyes were set off because of his shirt, a hunter green waffle knit pullover. Maybe she'd just gotten used to him in school robes, but that shirt! Now, she'd always known Alf had been an incredible athlete, but somehow she'd never understood what that would do to his build. Or she'd been completely blind at school. But he was trim and fit, muscular without being bulky, the perfect build for a keeper, and somehow the shirt hugged him perfectly. The vee neck, too...as he spoke she found herself watching how his adam's apple bobbed up and down; she had a sudden desire to reach over and nuzzle...
WHAT WAS SHE THINKING? This was Alf, one of her oldest friends, someone who was like a bloody brother to her. She could not possibly find him sexy, it was utterly indecent!
With effort, and with a blush coming up in her face, she fought to focus on what Alf was actually saying, and tried like hell to forget everything else.
I am an idiot, an idiot, an idiot.
And I am talking much too much.
The shock at discovering that the woman who he had been borderline lusting for was one of his best friends had totally thrown Alf, and he knew full well he had not recovered. Not that anything seemed to have phased Ei, she had, after a second's surprise of seeing him (though she had a momentary blush on her face, rather surprising), given him her sweet smile and looked perfectly at ease. He was not at ease, though; he gave her an awkward arm punch that seemed wrong when three minutes earlier he was wondering what her hair would feel like. And he downed his beer in a couple of gulps.
But Eileen, ever sensible, asked him the usual questions about his school work; their courses of study were actually quite similar, though Alf was in research; and it was not surprising that it would be of interest. So he started talking to her about what he was working on.
And talking, and talking...he was babbling like a fool. Eileen must wonder what the hell had happened to him, to turn him into a walking piece of verbal diarrhea. And yet he couldn't stop...was scared to death what would happen if he stopped talking.
Like if he stopped talking he might go back to thinking that her lips were about the most perfect thing he'd ever seen. The silence might let him resume wondering about the silkiness of her hair, about the little tiny hairs that had escaped her ponytail at the base of her neck, curling slightly. Then there was how those earrings dangled and danced on her dainty ears...exceptionally distracting, and if he stopped talking he might just actually reach out and touch one.
And the fact of her perfume...a sweet mix that resembled wildflowers, not heavy and not cloying, but somehow as if she had just spent the afternoon rolling in a meadow somewhere...naked...
THAT thought had to stop at once...and he blinked away the image that came to him, and turned back to Tom. "Another pint...and one for the lady as well." He made certain he kept eyes on the bartender, because that was the only way he would ever get that vision out of his head. "So...you around for long?"
"All summer..." And he listened, with occasional, quick glances, as she detailed her apprenticeship.
It was bloody awkward, and Alf felt like a first class jerk. But the spell was suddenly broken when...
"Boy, they'll let anybody in this place nowadays!"
Teddy. Thank heavens.
And slowly, with the ease of Teddy's good humor, things became normal. Alf became normal; Eileen, really, had always been normal; it was all him acting stupid. But they were three of the four once more, only wanting for CJ's presence to make the group complete. That whole little...misunderstanding...was exactly that, and would soon be forgotten. It had to be.
Eileen was relieved to see that once Teddy got there, within minutes everything became normal. A very good thing, or else she'd have had to excuse herself to take a cold shower. For a minute there she'd been afraid she'd actually jump Alf, and that would have been terrible; clearly he had no such feelings for her.
But the rest of the evening passed quite pleasantly. A few old school chums stopped in and greeted them, and it became a mini reunion. Teddy looked fantastic; tall and tan, going with his golden brown hair close to natural; in fact, his easy good looks were mostly natural now, unlike those days when he'd been pretending to be a demi-god in order to hid his illness. Several women turned to look at him, eyeing him up and down, but to no purpose: For two years now, Teddy's heart had belonged entirely to Victoire Weasley.
All good things must end, however, and it was with a gasp that she realized it was nearly two in the morning. She didn't have to work tomorrow, thankfully, but it was still a long walk home down Diagon Alley, and she'd never been able to apparate very well.
"You heading back to the hollow?" Teddy asked Alf, as they began to close out the tab.
Alf appeared to think for a second. "Dad gave me keys to the flat over the store...you're welcome to stay over, if you don't want to risk apparating."
Teddy scoffed. "I've had two beers in five hours; if I can't apparate after that I don't deserve my license. Besides, Victoire's coming over for breakfast tomorrow" He blushed faintly, and Alf and Eileen both snickered.
As they worked out a tip, Teddy asked Eileen how she was getting home. "Hopefully, there'll be a cab for hire on the other side...but if not, I'll hoof it."
Alf balked at once. "To the far end of Diagon Alley at this time of night? Don't be absurd."
She leveled a firm glance at him. "I am not inept, you know."
"Never said you were. Nevertheless, as I'm staying over the shop anyway, I'll walk you out. If we can't get you a cab, I can always fly you home once I get my broom."
Which was actually a relief, she supposed; she hadn't looked forward to so long a walk.
"Always the gentleman, making me look bad." Teddy teased.
"It's my job." Alf retorted, throwing his jacket on; Eileen couldn't help but notice how sharp he looked.
Damn, there it was again. She made a point of paying attention to her own jacket, and headed towards the back exit with Alf, after giving Teddy a hug. Teddy seemed to give her a rather quizzical look that she just didn't understand at all...unless, she thought as she walked towards the back wall where Alf was waiting, he had read her thoughts about Alf. Now THAT was mortifying!
Alf smiled as she came up next to him. "I'll never forget the first time I came through this wall...I was ten years old and on my own, with no clue that the world of magic even existed..." He tapped the bricks in quick order, and the archway began to appear. "I nearly passed out when I saw what lay ahead."
"Must have been shocking." Eileen walked through the exit with him, and the two of them headed in to the pleasantly cool evening. "So...you think Teddy is going to ask Victoire to marry him, now that she's graduated?" Eileen hoped that by talking about others, she'd keep any awkwardness away.
"It's just a matter of time." Alf replied. Then he gave a half chuckle. "She told me when she was eight years old that she meant to marry him; it just took a rather circuitous route!"
Eileen snorted. "I'll say. Remember how Teddy spent the first half of seventh year begging her to agree to go to the Yule Ball with him?" Oh, those days...for, all of sixth year, Teddy had dated various girls, because he still thought of Victoire as a kid, albeit a good one. Meanwhile, CJ had just kept smirking behind his back as he dated Liv. And then, first day seventh year, Victoire had turned the corner to get on the train, and it had been like Teddy had never seen her before. And, with the frantic realization that he'd been a fool for too long, he'd started asking her out, only to be rebuffed over and over again. Alf remembered it as well.
"Yep...she kept insisting that Teddy ought to be asking a seventh year who was more worthy of him." Alf shook his head. "Boy, she played that one right...Teddy had assumed she'd say yes, and when she kept turning him down it made him crazy. What was it, the day before the ball when she finally agreed?"
"And then it turned out she had a dress the entire time." Eileen lost herself in the memory, of a relieved Teddy waiting for Victoire, and Victoire coming out looking like a fairy princess, in shimmering lavender that offset her strawberry blonde beauty perfectly. "Lucky for CJ that he had an easier time of it." She added.
"Mmm." Alf stuffed his hands deep in his pockets. "He mentioned to me before fifth year that he had a bit of a crush on her...things got ugly, though, with that vow he was fighting. It bugged the crap out of me that he was dating somebody else instead of her." Alf chuckled lightly. "Then, after he came through it okay, he asked my permission to formally date her."
"No...she'd kill him if she knew!" She gasped, grinning widely.
"Not as badly as I'd have killed him if I found him snogging my sister with no warning!" Alf tried to look stern, and then failed, giving back in to his good natured smile. "Seriously, though...they've always been perfect for each other."
"Total understanding between them." Eileen nodded, refusing to give in to a certain wistfulness. "It was funny, though, how by the time seventh year came around all the girls suddenly noticed CJ, and he just couldn't be bothered."
"Well of course not. They'd considered him antisocial before, then suddenly he was the strong silent type. All bullshit." Alf had understood CJ's disdain for women who showed an interest in him only after he'd hit six feet tall and fully grown in to the same good looks that his eldest brother had been renowned for.
"The four of them were quite disgusting the night of the ball, though." Eileen added, remembering how often it seemed both couples had managed to get themselves lost in hidden alcoves, groping furiously.
"Yes, but fortunately they had the two of us to prevent them from getting carried away." Alf deadpanned, and Eileen laughed at the memory.
"That they didn't kill us is quite remarkable." She admitted.
Eileen hadn't had a boyfriend then; she'd dated once or twice, but mostly found the boys of Hogwarts, beyond her close friends, to be juvenile. Alf, also, had been dateless for the ball that year...he'd had a brief stint with Maeve Kearne for a bit but broke it off in November because he found her 'too damned clingy.' Once CJ and Liv, and Teddy and Victoire, had paired off, Alf and she had shrugged and decided, over a library project, that they would just go with each other, and have a good time.
And they had...they had had a great time. They danced all of the fast dances, got punch during the slow dances, and followed their friends around to prank them whenever they got too lost in the snogging. "I bet we had more fun than they did!" She added, getting lost in the memory.
"Not surprising, considering that I convinced Peeves to douse Teddy and Fleur with chocolate sauce, and that we set of a firecracker near Liv and CJ, startling them to the point where CJ fell into the fountain." Alf kicked at a stone playfully. "How long were we in detention for?"
"A week, scrubbing cauldrons. My poor dishpan hands!" She lamented, though with a deep smile on our face. "It was supposed to be two weeks, but we were making Professor Morgainne so crazy with our laughter that she got sick of us."
"You always laughed at my jokes." Alf gave her a curious look.
"You were always funny." She shot him an impish look back. "Don't know what's happened to you now."
They lapsed in to silence again; the night was fine, and the sky full of stars, with not another soul to be seen, as they came upon the new and improved Wheezes. Alf dug for the keys. "I'll just pop up and get a broom...there are usually extras in the front closet..." He dropped the ring suddenly, and Eileen bent over to pick them up for him.
He did the same, and they bumped each other, both exclaiming "OW!" at the same time, rubbing their heads and laughing. "Hell, woman...your cranium is solid steel!"
"Then yours must be cement!" She retorted. "Because my steel is dented!"
"Here, let me see..." Alf came forward to look at her, and brushed her hair off her forehead.
And it was back. And it wasn't going away this time. Eileen caught her breath. If only he hadn't touched her...if only he wasn't standing so close, smelling so nice and looking so good. Then she could have forgotten her rather desperate feelings that suddenly would not be denied.
But he touched her. And his mouth was just inches from hers. And she had to.
She kissed him.
Alf thought he might get out of this cleanly. His new, and obviously unrequited feelings for one of his best friends simply could not be given in to. And they were doing it...they were walking along and laughing together like old times, with no untoward behavior on his part. And then he touched her. They had bumped heads, and he really only wanted to make sure she was okay. But when he'd touched her, it was like a bolt of lightening coursing through his veins. His mouth went dry, and every nerve stood on end, tingling through him from his toes to the roots of his hair.
I can't kiss her...I can't kiss her...I can't...
She kissed him, and then all bets were off.
He responded. He HAD to. She kissed him. She KISSED him, and he was kissing her back; and then her arms wrapped around him, fingers running through his hair, and he moved his own arms around her back, and then lower, lifting her up and towards him, pushing her back against the entryway of the building.
They came up for air after several minutes, at the same time, both gasping with the effort, both trembling with desire. Alf looked into her eyes, which seemed to be dark pools, and he said, rather shakily, "Is it a completely stupid question to ask if you want to come upstairs, Ei?"
Eileen squeezed even more closely against him, making him shudder. "If you don't get that door open within two minutes, I will blow it off its hinges myself, Alf!"
CJ opened the door to the flat, not entirely surprised that the door to the upstairs was unlocked. He'd chatted with Dad by floo before he'd left Romania, and George had warned that he had encouraged Alf to crash there if the event at the Cauldron had run too late.
Wincing, he rubbed his injured arm. Just as well to floo here first; and if Alf were about, he'd have his brother take a look at his wound. A Hungarian Horntail had rather resented his inspection of her nest, and though CJ was quick, he'd not been quite quick enough. He knew Mum was going to go ballistic over it, particularly if she sensed that injury had not been well tended to (and he guessed that she would regard anybody other than her putting him back together as unqualified).
She could hardly complain, though, if he told her Alf had set the dressing!
He checked his watch and saw it was nearly eleven...funny Alf wasn't up yet. He was usually much more of a morning person than CJ!
At that moment a high pitched giggle reached his ears.
Alf didn't giggle.
CJ raised both eyebrows in surprise; Dad hadn't mentioned a girlfriend, nor had Alf mentioned one in his frequent letters. And Alf was assuredly not one for a one night stand! Yet...CJ bent over and picked up a pale rose shirt, definitely feminine, and taking a few steps forward, retrieved a black skirt as well. Most definitely not Alf's...although the corresponding dark green pullover might very well be. CJ continued to follow the clothing trail towards the bedroom.
Another giggle and a deeper laugh answered...most definitely Alf's laugh. CJ paused, wondering what the best thing to do would be, when the door flew open...
Eileen Prince had her back to him, wearing one of Alf's favorite tee shirts. "No, you can't have it back!" She quipped. "It's mine, now!"
Alf, with only eyes for Eileen, wrapped his arms around her. "That's okay, because I have you. MyEileen.." He murmured, making it sound like one word.
"Ahem." CJ cleared his throat loudly. "I am afraid I am trying to think up a suitable greeting here, and failing."
Eileen let out another shriek, this one of shock, and she darted behind Alf, who at least was in a robe. He was blushing furiously, as he blinked without full comprehension at CJ. CJ just stood there, his smile rapidly growing. This was utterly priceless!
Alf, of course, found a way to try to get out of the awkward conversation. "Hey...what the bloody hell did you do to your arm?"
"Dragon injury. Um, when you get a chance, I'd like you to take a look at it so Mum doesn't flip. And by the way, it's nearly eleven and we have to be at Hogwarts by 3." He looked over Alf's shoulder. "I assume you'll be attending the ceremonies as well, Leenie?" He said, quite calmly, somehow managing not to smirk.
"Um...yeah...I think I need to go home and change..." She murmured, still from behind Alf's back.
"Then you'll need these." CJ's eyes twinkled, as he handed Alf Eileen's clothing, and then he turned and went back to the kitchen to make coffee.
Half an hour later, a flustered Eileen had hurried off, and Alf had, with phony calm, come over to CJ to look over up his injured arm. CJ was content to let Alf work without comment, mostly because he hadn't quite decided which of the hundreds of possible lines he was going to use.
Alf was aided in his need to carry this off nonchalantly by the medical work...once he was in the midst of treating a patient, he was able to shut out the rest of the world. "They didn't do too badly over there." He said, spreading some paste that frankly burned like hell on the gash. "But we don't want to risk any infection...and the method of wrapping was frankly strange!"
"Yeah, well...when your arm is being tended to by a one-armed medi-witch, the work is bound to be sloppy." He grimaced as Alf wrapped the gash up tightly. "But I figured Mum would go bats if she saw it looking like that."
"No doubt." Alf finished with a flourish. "Um, about last night…" He started, rubbing at his neck sheepishly.
"You know, I think I've finally come up with a suitable response." CJ drawled out, rolling his sleeve down. "How about, it's about bloody time, you clueless git!"
Alf laughed, leaning against the counter, still rather pink about the whole thing. "This must seem pretty weird." He admitted.
"Only to you two." CJ pointed out. "The rest of us have been expecting this for some time."
"Really?" Alf asked, clearly surprised. "I mean, why? We've been friends forever, but why would you think that we'd end up something more?"
CJ considered the many points in time where Eileen and Alf had been totally in sympathy with each other, how often she had picked up on his moods and his needs when nobody else did, how often he understood her when the rest of them were clueless. And of course, CJ had had his own reasons for wanting to believe that Alf and Eileen were destined for each other. But he doubted Alf would really understand any of that. "Never mind. You just had to find your own way to each other, I guess...just like it took Teddy time to really see Victoire. And...I'm happy for you." He added, giving Alf a firm smile. "It's perfect, actually..." CJ hesitated, then plunged ahead. "It will make my wedding party so much easier to arrange."
That took a second to sink in. "You and Liv?" Alf asked, blinking once or twice.
"If she says yes...And assuming her older brother has no objections…" CJ shrugged a bit, then dug a neat little box out of his pocket. It held a solitaire diamond ring, perfect in its simplicity.
"She will…and he doesn't." Alf smiled, leaving CJ almost giddy in relief. "Although explaining to my offspring someday that my brother married my sister, and why that's no problem, is going to be interesting."
"Hell, for our entire family, you need a road map to figure out which end is up. Nothing new there!" CJ picked up on Alf's comment as he thought it over. "Um, offspring?"
Alf laughed. "Hell, yes...I'm thinking at least one boy and one girl, with Eileen's looks and my brains. Or do you think I'm rushing in to things?"
CJ just smirked, and thought to himself, It's been eight years since I realized you two belonged together. I don't think 'rush' is the word I'd use!
Weasley's Wizard Wheezes, Diagon Alley Superstore, was closed for the evening, for a 'private family function.'
Namely, George had decided to turn the lower level into the post-graduation party for the entire family. After all, Liv's father Billy was hardly equipped to throw a proper wizard event (though he had been willing to cater in the food). And Shell Cottage remained, now as always, in the care of a secret keeper. Because, as Percy said, one never knew when there would be a need for the Weasleys to get themselves in to a bit of a hot spot. They did so have a tendency to do that.
George watched with pride as the extended family turned out, making the place as loud and raucous as any Christmas rush. The youngest children...for the time being...were his own twins, who were fortunately confined to the play area for youngsters he'd put in during the rebuild. Freddo and Percy's son Cedric were in there as well, trying to avoid the girls' zinging spells as best they could, and showing remarkable forbearance.
Just beyond, the older kids were in a rousing game of exploding snap, with James trying to be bossy and Albus, Rosie and Perri telling him off on a regular basis. Lily and Hugo, meanwhile, were up to something, that something clearly instigated by Lily, and George was content to just watch it develop.
Michelle came up next to him, giving his arm a squeeze. "Did you hear about Alf and Eileen?" She asked, excitedly.
"Yes, and to quote CJ, about bloody time." George grinned, looking over at the four-house foursome, as he'd heard Michelle refer to them in their day. CJ, Teddy, Alf and Eileen. With Alf and Eileen fitting together like two puzzle pieces, and Teddy and CJ laughing at them. "And speaking of CJ..." George started.
At that moment, Katie and Mollie came up to him, having 'escaped' the play area.
"Daddy, did you hear..." Katie started
"About CJ and Liv?" Mollie hurried in.
"I'm gonna be a flower girl..." Katie jumped up and down.
"Me too..." Mollie insisted.
"We're gonna wear PINK!"
"With purple ribbons..."
"And a giant hair bow!"
"IT'LL BE WICKED!" The last bit they spoke together.
"Um, I think it's actually Liv that gets to decide what you two are wearing." Michelle's eyes were wide at the picture their description had presented.
"And, I think it's up to your mother and I if you get to do it at all." George said, with raised eyebrows. "So I think that I know certain young ladies who might want to be careful about keeping their room clean, and listening to their parents, and not hexing their brother..."
Katie squeaked, and Mollie put her hands over her mouth, and then both of them rushed into the play area.
"Freddo...don't touch that..."
George laughed, even as Michelle put her head in her hands, and a puff of smoke emanated from the play area.
"Mollie, Katie!" Freddo's voice was exasperated. "You turned me BLUE!"
George grinned as he saw Alf move to go in to rescue his little brother. Michelle looked up at George. "When is that wedding?"
"A year from now, CJ said. That's a year's worth of leverage we have, anyway." George sighed, leaning over to touch Michelle's forehead. "And just a few more years after that until they start school. Just think of the unimaginable quiet we'll have then!"
"Right, except for the repeated howlers from Headmaster Longbottom." She quipped, for Minerva had just retired. "And I wouldn't count on the quiet either, George. I would expect to have a grandchild by then..." Her eyes wandered over towards Eileen, who was holding on to a distressed Freddo while Alf tried to remove the curse. "Or two."
CJ watched, standing beside Teddy, as Alf finished restoring Freddo to a normal color. Eileen gave Freddo a big hug, and told him he was an excellent patient, and he heard Alf warning him about not exacting revenge. "At least not too obviously." Alf continued under his breath, as he headed back over to Teddy and CJ. Eileen joined them, and he intertwined his hand with hers.
Victoire and Liv were still having photos taken of them from every respective angle by the very proud Bill Weasley and Billy Woodruff. A stocky boy CJ had never seen before was eyeing things curiously; then he spotted Alf and, with a start, headed over.
"My half brother." Alf explained to his friends. "Len."
He hadn't seen Len since the day after his mother's funeral, when his step father had put him on that train to London. He'd been an annoying six year old then, whinny and petulant, and had all the imagination of a slug. Now, he was a burly sixteen year old, who looked like he'd make an excellent Quidditch beater.
Len had Billy's olive skin and dark hair and eyes; he also had his cautious speech. "Hey." He said to Alf, choosing his words carefully. "Um, it's been a while. Though Liv talks about you all the time."
"Len." Alf held out his hand. "You've gotten a bit bigger than last I saw you."
To Alf's surprise, Len flashed a smile. "I would hope I had." Len looked around at the store. "It's so much bigger than I pictured it, from the stories Mum told. The store, I mean."
CJ coughed lightly, and Alf explained, "It's not the one she would have known, Len. That building was destroyed a few years back. This is all new." Then, Alf thought about what Len had said. "I'm surprised you pictured it at all. You never did seem to listen to them much."
Len gave a little shrug. "I'd pretend to not listen. She seemed to be telling them to you; sometimes I felt like I was just an afterthought." And then he sighed, looking around. "It's hard to believe, but it's pretty awesome, just the same. I wish, sometimes, that I...:" His voice trailed off in confusion.
Alf felt for Len, perhaps for the first time. It had never occurred to him that Len might have been envious of him, envious of Katie's attention to him, when they were little. Certainly Alf hadn't seemed to be magical...indeed, Katie had thought that he was a squib...but somehow unconsciously his Mum must have let Len see that Alf was different. "Then what would your Dad have done, Len?" Alf pointed out. "You take after him, is all. And I bet he's needed you, these years."
Len looked over at Alf. "Dad says you're going to be a doctor, and cure cancer. For Mum."
"That's my plan." Alf gave him a grin. "As ambitious and absurd as it might seem."
"I hope you do." Len replied. Then he turned as Billy called out to him, heading for the back room where the food was being arranged. "See you over dinner."
Liv and Victoire were heading for them, just a few seconds later, and there was a lot of laughter and giggling as Teddy and CJ teased them both, and they in turn teased Alf and Eileen. From the back room, Molly Weasley called everyone in to dinner. CJ grabbed hold of Alf, though, and pulled him to the back of the group.
"What?" Alf asked, as they were quickly the only ones left on the main floor.
"Alf…Dad's offered me my own department." CJ said, sounding anxious about it.
Alf just grinned. "Of course he did. And you deserve it."
"I…" CJ hesitated. "I'm not sure I do, really."
"Shut up." Alf said, crossing his arms. "Dad, as you may have noticed, is a pretty astute business man. He doesn't make dumb decisions. Never has."
"Right." CJ rubbed the back of his neck. "Said he wanted to make me a partner, but knew that would freak me out…" He gave a short laugh. "He's not wrong there, either. But maybe someday…"
"Someday." Alf squeezed his shoulder. "When you realize what you're worth, to us all."
"You don't regret giving up your share?" CJ asked, needing to be sure.
"Never." Alf sighed, looking around the store. "I'm leaving the business to those who can most make it thrive, and there isn't a better testament to Wheezes than that."
CJ looked around the store, with a fond smile. "I've always dreamed of this day, you know. Literally, Alf; only time I've ever given divination any kind of credence."
Alf thought it over, remembering his day at the grave. "Not sure it's divination, Ceej. Those who have moved on…sometimes I feel like they have their own way of looking out for us, when they can. The key, I think, is being smart enough to listen."
"Maybe." CJ agreed.
Ricky stuck his head through the doorway. "Oi, you lot…better get in here soon or you'll be left with the corned beef."
CJ laughed, as Alf looked horrified. "But I like corned beef." CJ quipped.
"Black sheep." Alf teased. "C'mon, let's go."
They left the room behind.
There was quiet in the room then. Quiet only interrupted by the snuffling sounds of a pen full of pygmy puffs. And on one wall, a grouping of magical photos from various years of the store moved about. In the center one, two young men stood together, tall and proud in Magenta robes. They had identical faces and identical smiles; one's robe showed a large F, and the other a large G. It was their first store, the old store, that they stood in front of, and both waved enthusiastically, in the manner of magical photographs.
For a moment, the one wearing the F paused in his waving. He looked outward, and blinking once, wiped at his eyes, though his smile never wavered. And then he resumed his stance beside his twin, giving George rabbit ears behind his back.
And from the next room, the sounds of life, of laughter, and of love, continued on.